How I Became a Writer

My writing bus began its long and perhaps typically unusual journey when I was seven, living in New Jersey. I got tired of people asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and one day, while my mother was napping and I, unable to sleep, tried to make patterns out of the cracks in the ceiling, I realized that I wanted to be a writer. I've since suspected that there was a connection between the inclination to create order out of those chaotic cracks and the desire to reassemble the mess of reality into a crafted piece of writing. But it's also possible that my epiphany was derived from the trips to the library my family made every three days, at the same time as my mother was studying to become a librarian and my father was teaching classes in the Newark public schools.

When I entered third grade, we moved to Pennsylvania and I began writing bundles of letters a week. This proved to be excellent training for my writing. I had many friends back in New Jersey and, since each wrote to me in her distinct voice with her unique interests, I tried to tailor my responses accordingly. As a result, I learned that one can write in many styles and about many concerns, which is why, as a writing teacher, I tend not to urge students to "find your voice" I feel that we all have many voices, just as we all have many sides to ourselves.

My family moved back to and then around New Jersey. I met more friends, which meant that I wrote increasing amounts of letters. I discovered that I loved the act of writing itself, even more than the vague notion of becoming a writer, and so when I'd had my daily fill of letter-writing, I wrote stories, novels, and plays. Perhaps my most fruitful time came when I had the good fortune to become a boarding student at Solebury School. Although I ended up there because of a harrowing downturn of events at home, I feel blessed to have attended a school which placed such a strong emphasis on the importance of each individual, and hence which provided me with close, one-on-one attention, from my writing to my academic interests. By the time I was eighteen, I had written four book-length works.

And then I went into writer's block. The reasons for writer's block are complex and can vary widely depending on the person and situation. But whatever the source, writer's block almost inevitably manifests itself as the inability to concentrate during the creative process. In my case, I rarely even attempted to write, fearing I simply could not live up to the literary standards that I now realized a writer needed. In addition, the turmoil in my family had hardened something in my heart at the same time as it left me with an undercurrent of rage and fear, rendering the solitude necessary for writing unendurable.

So while I was a student at Bryn Mawr College, I did not take creative writing courses, nor did I major in English. Instead, I studied Anthropology, realizing as I advanced through the program that this was in fact a perfect foundation for a writer, since Anthropology aims, among other things, to teach one to see through the eyes of others. Bryn Mawr also values the individual, so even though I did not sit beside my professors to review my short stories, I nonetheless felt respected, and developed the faith, through their oversight, that industriousness would carry me through when passion failed me, and, indeed, that it might even give rise to new passions. Thus, I developed a strong sense of discipline, which meant that I learned how to schedule time for each required task in my life. This, in turn, meant that I learned how to say no, both to myself and to others. "No" is always a hard lesson, and I must relearn it every year, but it is perhaps the most important tool a writer has, even more than the keyboard or pen Aside from all this, I learned at Bryn Mawr that there is no maximum - the only limits are those set by oneself. This alone was the most valuable lesson necessary to becoming a writer.

After college, I remained in writer's block, emerging only after I had made alterations in my family struggles and had moved in with the boyfriend who, in Riding The Bus With My Sister, I refer to as Sam. I was in my mid-twenties, and now knew enough to realize that my previous writing, pleasurable though it had been, remained in the realm of first draft. Henceforth, I would need to refine each piece so make it work for readers, especially if I wanted it read beyond my circle of friends. Discipline came to my rescue; every day, I went to the library right at the end of my workday, and wrote from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. At first this was quite trying, so I gave myself exercises and small goals ("Write a good sentence," "Write a paragraph with a central metaphor"). By the end of three months, I produced short stories.

For the next few years, I took writing classes and kept up my discipline. In addition, I discovered the great John Gardner book, The Art of Fiction, which became crucial to my growing awareness and developing skills. In the past several years, many people have found that Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird has helped them in the way that Gardner helped me. I also benefited from reading writing magazines, including Poets & Writers, and from reading contemporary writers. In other words, I turned to other writers to educate myself.

I eventually went to graduate school for an M.F.A. Those who choose to pursue graduate school should make sure that they are fully prepared to give it all they've got, and realize that they will profit most if they are already producing work regularly. Those who seem to benefit least are those who view it as a way to push themselves to develop the discipline they have not acquired through internal motivation. In other words, an aspiring student who is in writer's block, or who writes only when inspired, is unlikely to find that graduate school is the magic elixir. I have already discussed writer's block above, and you can read more about it in my free online writing books. As for inspiration, it cannot be trusted nor relied upon. Trust is problematic because, although one might feel euphoric when inspired, the work that one produces might not, upon more sober reflection, be as perfect as initially thought, and might not even be headed in the right direction. Inspiration is also notoriously unreliable; if one is moved to write only once a month or year, one will have a hard time polishing work, much less developing skills. Few professional writers will disagree with this, as will few professional musicians, physicians, or bricklayers. Anything that requires skill requires practice, and practice is not dependant on mood - or external forces such as graduate school.

To find a graduate program that's good for you, look at material published by AWP.

During graduate school I was lucky enough to win the Writer's At Work Fiction Competition, and shortly after my graduation, I flew to Park City, Utah, to attend the Writer's At Work conference. Since I had entered graduate school with the plan of graduating with a collection of short stories, and since I had worked fifteen-hour days after receiving the notification of my winning status, I arrived at the conference with a suitcase filled with copies of my completed manuscript. I handed it out to all the editors I met while I was there, and six weeks later I received an offer from Houghton Mifflin. Two years later, in 1990, they published a much-revised version of this collection, Little Nightmares, Little Dreams.

I then spent six months working on a novel. Initially I produced a sprawling, nine hundred page manuscript which my agent failed to sell. After moping about for a few months, wallowing in what I now see as self-pity and despair over my failure, I spoke to a former Bryn Mawr professor who pointed out that everyone fails on his or her way to larger success, and that the only way one ultimately succeeds is by learning how to press on after failure. It was heartening to realize that my unsold project was not, as I'd thought, some indelible confirmation of my worthlessness as a person or lack of talent as a writer, but was merely something to get through, and, moreover, the kind of impediment that all writers must get through. As soon as I stopped seeing myself branded as a loser by some cosmic judge, I returned to the work.

I then spent the next two years writing full-time, learning an immense amount during the process that no one had ever taught me. I collected these lessons into the two books that I'm posting here as e-books: The Writer's Writing Guide, which covers some of the technical tricks I picked up, and The Writer's Survival Guide (coming soon), which delves into the emotional ups and downs of the creative process, as well as logistical matters such as time management. I use the former with my students; the latter was published as my third book in 1997, but since it is now out of print, I elected to make it once more available here. The novel, thoroughly reworked, was finally titled The Magic Touch, and came out from Viking in 1994.

During these years, I supported myself with money from grants and fellowships, including the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. Those who would like to investigate grants should contact the international writers' organization PEN for their book Grants and Awards Available to American Writers.

At this point, I hit a detour in my writing journey. I wrote a memoir that failed to sell, and eventually another novel suffered the same fate. In the meantime, Sam and I parted ways, and, destitute and lonely, I found solace in a number of jobs. Although the ensuing workaholism created new problems for me, each one of the jobs was stimulating and rewarding, and did as much to buoy my spirits as my knowledge that an unsold manuscript does not a loser make. The best position was as the Community Relations Manager at the Barnes & Noble in Princeton, New Jersey. As the person who booked and hosted events, handled the media, and did community outreach, I found myself able to offer intellectual, social, and perhaps even emotional delights to scores of people every night. I began to develop a set of life beliefs that have guided me ever since.

Furthermore, I saw that every writer goes through great difficulties, from the inception of an idea through the production of a finished product through the process of finding a publisher through the vicissitudes of public reaction to a book's release. And I saw that some writers handled the inevitable struggles and disappointments with bitterness, somehow convinced that the cosmic judge had it in for them (as someone once said to me after a series of misfortunes, "The world has been doing this to me for a very long time"), whereas other writers maintained a sense of peace about life overall. I came to see that those who didn't slide into the despair I myself knew too well had simply learned not to take the hardships of the writing life personally. They truly enjoyed the writing enough to press on, without expecting reality to conform to their fantasies. Eventually, this is what working at Barnes & Noble helped me to do as well. In addition, I saw that, even if literary success remains elusive (since it can be, after all, a randomly bestowed gift), serenity and even happiness can still be one's lot in life, should the writing process, and the larger aspects of giving to others, be gratifying and thus worth continuing. I address how to use a bookstore to become a better writer elsewhere on this site.

The rest of my own story is told in my two memoirs, Riding The Bus With My Sister and Building A Home With My Husband.  I currently write full-time.

One more tip for you.  When people ask for advice in securing an agent, I refer them to publishing consultants, who can ensure that a manuscript is of publishable quality.  I can recommend one in particular, Anne Dubuisson, who can be reached at her site, www.anneconsults.com.

However you choose to pursue your own writing, I wish you much patience, many pleasures, and an endless supply of luck.


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